Tag Archives: Edgar Lee Masters

The People from Heaven / John Sanford

I read about John Sanford probably 40 years ago, remembering that he had been highly praised, and had it in the back of my mind to explore it further, but when I went to to do so, could find very little on him, not surprising as this was well before the Internet came into being. Not helping my quest any was the fact that a guy named John Sandford had written a boatload of very popular books, and, when the Internet did arrive, his was the only name that came up in searches. Still having it on my mind as time went on, I gradually gave up, but must have retained it because, a few weeks ago, having come across a book I hadn’t known existed by Marion Meade called Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. I immediately took it home and while reading it, was perusing a glossary of people mentioned and the name “John Sanford” immediately caught my eye. The rest is history, but I never cease to be amazed at how things can connect years apart if you just keep reading.

The People from Heaven was published in 1943, and, although this is said of many works, it was truly ahead of its time, the principal reason it never gained traction with the critics, much less the public. As with most original works of art, the book was doomed to failure by critics who couldn’t categorize it, failing to recognize something truly path breaking had been produced.

At the time, the poet Carl Sandburg lauded the book, and poet William Carlos Williams, an early champion, publishing several of Sanford’s stories in Contact, said it’s “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.”

The title was taken from the  cry of celebration purported uttered by the indigenous peoples hailing the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans to their shores, “Come, come to see the people from Heaven!” And how’d that work out for them?

The plot, without spoiling it, centers around Eli Bishop, a propertied white man and chief racist, an American Indian father and son, an independent-minded prostitute, a Jewish refugee from czarist pogroms, and the hero, an itinerant Black woman locally referred to as “America Smith,” who strikes a blow for freedom in her own way.

It stridently portrays and condemns in no uncertain terms racism toward the Negro long before the Civil Rights movement, the Jew a decade before the holocaust, and the Native American which had really never been addressed until the sixties. While containing all the elements of modernism and radicalism, it didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of previous works labeled as such, works like Tobacco Road, Bottom Dogs, Uncle Tom’s Children, Freedom Road, U.S.A.: a trilogy.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, he is a possible influence based on his use of historical documents in his book In the American Grain, except that Sanford employs it as verse and interwoven with the narrative, consisting of nine poetic commentaries depicting episodes of persecution and oppression ranging from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Another direct inspiration is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (see my earlier entry regarding that book) for the brief but candid brief biographies of the characters Sanford employs.

Other works it brings to mind would be Our TownWinesburg, Ohio, even some elements  of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially as its setting is in the same general area of New York, and for it’s portrait of small town life in that same time period. It captures the immediacy of the time period more than anything I’ve ever read.

Born Julian Shapiro,  in Harlem, Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West (born Weinstein), to whom the book was dedicated, and who suggested his friend also change his name,  and he became John Sanford from then on. Ironically, the Communist Party, of which Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, condemned his book as too far- left. He and his wife, both screenwriters, were blacklisted in the 50s witch hunts, setbacks from which they (as many) never fully recovered. Sanford lived until he was 98, authored 24 books, including a 5-volume autobiography, half of which were written after the age of 80, he wrote right up until the month before he died.

A noteworthy feature of the book is his employment of colloquialisms, obsolete words, poetic descriptions, and some just laugh-out expressions , so impressive I felt it necessary to list a few so you could get a better feel for the book:

“I’m like a bear-steak…the more you chew me, the bigger I get”

“I’m a three-cornered liar if she wasn’t prettier dead than a live woman sleeping”

“He don’t eat enough to keep a snow-bird alive.”

“He brought the [dollar] bill out of his pocket as if it were a strip of adhesive-tape plastered to his thigh.’

“…you couldn’t drive a prune into me with a mallet.”

“faunching,”

“feeling kind of loppy,” ”

snuzzling”

“meeching”

“extravasate”

“the breeze made fingers in my hair”

“Leaves were flippant in an infrequent wind…”

“…and fireflies were moving stop-lights in the accumulating gloom.”

“Now there’s a prayer that weighs a pound and a half!…”

“sweat like a stone crock”

“…a spiral of fly-paper drilled the smoke-marbled air.”

“I don’t get any more sunshine than a clam.”

“…so bow-legged he couldn’t stop a hog in a hallway.”

“Heads turned like electric fans…”

“…but he stuck around like a fly at a butchering-bee…”

“…either we just run down a pole-cat, or else somebody in this car needs a bath.”

“She pays her rent as regular as you change your drawers, and that’s once a month.”

‘…he ain’t got no more to say about where he’s going than a dish of ice-cream at the Poor Home.”

Be warned the book contains several harrowing passages, one describing Jewish girls being shot from trees; America Smith’s account of her birth and rape; and one of the verse inserts describing the Jesuit Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.

It is a magnificent book, one for which at least two reads are necessary to get the full import, which I suspect will be even more pleasurable the second time around. I’ll let you know.

 

“Spoon River Anthology”

Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and  it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.

It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor  a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.

Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.

The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.

In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.

I leave you with this,  spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:

“Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

And if the people find you can fiddle,

Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.

What do you see, a harvest of clover?

Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands

For beeves hereafter ready for market;

Or else you hear the rustle of skirts

Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.

To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust

Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;

They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy

Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”

How could I till my forty acres

Not to speak of getting more,

With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos

Stirred in my brain by crows and robins

And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?

And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret”.